Why did the world tolerate Mugabe for so long?

The world knew that Zimbabwe's leader was a tyrant, but the international community allowed his reign of terror to persist for decades, writes Sholto Byrnes

epa06340038 (FILE) - President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe speaks during the General Debate of the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, New York, USA, 21 September 2017,(reissued 20 November 2017). Media reports that deadline set by the the ruling Zanu-PF party for Robert Mugabe to resign has past on on 20 Nove later in the day to discuss the possible impeachment of President Mugabe.  EPA/JASON SZENES *** Local Caption *** 53782908
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Whether he is impeached or he resigns, we know for sure that Robert Mugabe's days as Zimbabwe's tyrant are numbered, as he has already suffered the indignity of being fired as leader of the ruling ZANU-PF on Sunday.

But there is an awful lot more that we know and have known about Mr Mugabe, for decades, in some cases. The world knew about the massacre unleashed upon Matabeleland, the stronghold of Mr Mugabe's rival, Joshua Nkomo, in 1983, only three years after independence, in which up to 20,000 civilians were killed.

The world knew about the dispossession of white farmers from the mid-1990s onwards, sometimes forcibly and violently, and about the subsequent collapse of the Zimbabwean economy. Hyperinflation was so severe at one point, according to the Economist, that "Z$1trn would not buy a boiled sweet". The unemployment rate, meanwhile, is estimated to be the world's highest, at 95 per cent.

The world knew about the elections that Zanu-PF and Mr Mugabe lost at the ballot box, only to retain power through fraud, intimidation and worse. Many Zimbabweans pronounced their own verdict on his misrule with their feet – up to five million out of a population of 17 million have emigrated – while the extravagance and extreme wealth of those in the president’s inner circle have been flaunted openly, to the disgust of their impoverished compatriots.

All of which leads me to the question: why did the world tolerate him for so long? This is not to say that all countries did nothing – the United States began imposing various restrictions and sanctions in 2001 (while remaining, according to the US state department, “the ‎largest provider of development and humanitarian assistance to the people of Zimbabwe”), followed by the European Union in 2002.


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In 2008 the UK stripped him of the honorary knighthood he had been awarded in 1994, while Nelson Mandela offered oblique criticism in a 90th birthday address in London when he referred to "the tragic failure of leadership in our neighbouring Zimbabwe".

The ineffectiveness of these moves in doing anything to dislodge the dictator has been shown, however, by the fact that it was only his recent dismissal of his vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, and his expected elevation of his second wife Grace to the heir apparency, that has led to his downfall. If he had not done so, Mr Mugabe would likely have been able to continue leading his country down the path of rack and ruin until, as he put it, "God says, come join the other angels".

In the meantime, Mr Mugabe has continued to be honoured with leadership roles. He was chairman of the African Union in 2015 after chairing the 16-nation Southern African Development Community the year before. Only last month, he was somewhat astonishingly appointed a goodwill ambassador by the World Health Organisation, until the UN agency "unappointed" him after a backlash.

It may be understandable that Western countries felt unable to take any stronger action against Mr Mugabe. For Britain, being the former colonial power meant both a sense of special responsibility but also a reluctance to be seen to meddle. In the early years, much was invested in Zimbabwe being a success story, which for a while it was (both also explain the blind eye turned to the Matabeleland massacres.) As it was, any criticism from the UK – and there was a lot, later on – was turned to Mr Mugabe’s advantage in the revolutionary, anti-colonialist speeches at which he excelled.

The leaders of many developing countries applauded him for that. This appeared to allow Malaysia’s long term prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, for instance, to be able to overlook the criminal incompetence and rapaciousness of the Mugabe regime, since the two – “good friends” according to the Zimbabwean – shared a delight in ultra-provocative anti-Western rhetoric.


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More broadly, the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries is one to which many states are still deeply attached. It is also one of the key pillars of the Non-Aligned Movement to which much of the Global South belongs.

Perhaps most importantly, Mr Mugabe is a bona fide liberation hero, who suffered greatly under British and independent white-majority rule. Many sins can be forgiven for that, and it is surely one of the reasons that other African countries have been so slow to call him to account publicly. Bringing defining change to a country has allowed many a strong leader to be judged lightly on subsequent misdeeds, from General Suharto’s shielding Indonesia from Communism, to Eamon de Valera’s role in the Easter Rising of 1916 and Ireland’s gaining freedom after centuries labouring under the British yoke.

But there has to be a limit, surely. And Mr Mugabe sailed past it a very long time ago. When he did so may be a matter for historians to debate. But given that he has so impoverished his country that he leaves it with a considerably smaller GDP per capita than when he took power in 1980, no national currency – it had to be suspended indefinitely after hyperinflation topped 50 billion per cent - an economy in ruins, and a democratic process that is observed in form rather than in practice, one may safely say that he did not reach that limit recently.

I am no fan of intervention, and particularly not of Western intervention. But if the African Union and the SADC are to mean anything at all, they must ask themselves: how did we let this happen? And how will we stop it ever happening again? Zimbabwe's tragedy can surely not be allowed to be repeated.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia